Paperhouse (1988) as a Warning Shot for the Atmospheric Horror of Candyman (1992)

When we were first discussing November’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, we were very adamant that the film didn’t entirely fall under the horror genre, despite the way it carried itself with a horror atmosphere. The film’s alternating dream world vs reality dichotomy lent itself to some horror genre hallmarks: an eerie score, a mutilated villain, an overwhelming sense of dread. Yet, the story was about a young girl exuding godlike control in a self-created dream space as a means of bucking against the health & home life helplessness she suffered in the “real world,” sometimes with the two realms meeting in unexpected ways. That’s not exactly the blueprint for the ghost stories, slashers, and monster movies we usually pin under the horror umbrella. Four years after Paperhouse, however, director Bernard Rose repurposed a lot of the dread-stirring techniques of the children’s film for something entirely different: Candyman. The supernatural slasher Candyman is certainly Rose’s most infamous film to date, but a lot of what makes it work as a bone-chilling, reality-disrupting horror can easily be traced back to the familial drama nightmare of Paperhouse.

Just like how Paperhouse distinguises between the natural world and the dream world of its protagonist’s crayon drawing, Candyman exists in two distinct spaces: in front of & behind the mirror. The killer from this Clive Barker-penned story is summoned in a mix of Beetlejuice lore & “Bloody Mary” urban legend shenanigans. After someone/anyone says “Candyman” five times in the mirror, the spirit of a brutally murdered slave with a hook for a hand and a body full of bees materializes to murder them. What’s brilliant about the way Candyman’s mirror realm is presented onscreen is that it partly exists as a physical space characters/victims can climb into through the back of medicine cabinets. This space exists both as a physical part of the building and as a dream world where the Candyman can hold hostages, sometimes infants, as bait to lure his more prized victims into full cooperation with his evil plans. The fantasy realm in Paperhouse works likewise. It’s physically represented in a crayon drawing the protagonist can manipulate while awake and as a dream realm she can only enter while asleep. The way one realm can affect the other in Paperhouse is also reflected in the way the Candyman frames his victims for murder while they’re under his spell, enacting a physical change in the “real” world while the protagonist is helplessly trapped in a supernatural one.

Besides their established dichotomies between “real” and fantasy spaces & the occasional crossovers that disrupt them, Paperhouse and Candyman also share a general sense of fairy tale storytelling. Paperhouse most notably feels like a classic fairy tale, following a young girl who can enter & change the world through her own drawings. Candyman, however, is specifically about the power of urban legends & myth making. It’s not too difficult to draw a line between traditional fairy tale folklore and the modern urban legend, particularly in the case of the Candyman’s legend, which includes supernatural detail in its mirror realms & its Biblically massive swarms of bees. The Candyman himself is desperately concerned with the strength and prominence of his own legend, focusing as much effort as possible on making sure people still believe in his fairy tale folklore as if his (after)life depends on it. As the series continues in its campier, less effective sequels, the Candyman even begins to somewhat reflect the intention of the eyes-scratched-out dream Dad of Paperhouse, specifically tormenting the living members of his family as part of his revenge strategy. By the third film in the series, his supernatural power is also revealed to be tied to a work of art, a self-portrait, which is even more of an encroachment on Paperhouse territory. Bernard Rose had no discernible influence on those diminishing returns ventures, but the fairy tale aesthetic & power he established in both Paperhouse & Candyman mirror each other close enough even without that connection.

There’s a lot to dissect in Paperhouse & Candyman‘s shared fairy tale narratives about dueling reality & fantasy realms, but it’s the way director Bernard Rose establishes a distressing mood in both films that truly ties them together. The menacing score from Hans Zimmer that makes so much of Paperhouse feel like a nightmare is recognizably echoed in Phillip Glass’s masterfully eerie work in Candyman. Both films turn cheap, cold sets into assets, distorting reality by making everything feel tactile, but off. The disorientation in how the two works distinguish between fantasy & reality similarly put the audience on edge. Paperhouse sets the table for a lot of the horror genre thrills Rose later pulled off in Candyman. Even though that latter work’s sequels pushed it into more traditional slasher territory, the film itself doesn’t ever feel like a strict horror narrative. Clive Barker’s writing style surely had an influence there, as his works like Hellraiser & Nightbreed never exactly fit into the traditional Jason Voorhees-type slasher box (despite Pinhead often being referenced in that context). Anyone who’s looking for standardized Candyman thrills where atmosphere is made secondary to violence & gore would likely find the most solace in that film’s less-than-stellar sequels. On the other hand, if the atmosphere & surrealism is what made Candyman feel special to you in the first place, Paperhouse demonstrates just how effective Rose can make that tone feel even with most of the horror removed. Paperhouse is remarkable in many ways that has nothing to do with Rose’s latter work in Candyman, but the film is still noteworthy as proof that his best known effort would still be horrifying even if it were completely removed from the horror genre.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

14 thoughts on “Paperhouse (1988) as a Warning Shot for the Atmospheric Horror of Candyman (1992)

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